The 26,000 square miles of the Texas Panhandle have challenged law enforcement agencies from the 67 cities and 26 counties that police the region as officers from one jurisdiction often encountered individuals wanted by another jurisdiction without knowing it. Now with the help of Recovery Act and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding, law enforcement agencies are building a regional data sharing initiative that officials see as having the potential for improving cross-agency communication, officer safety and efficiency in dispatcher operations.
“Even though we’re all in the Texas Panhandle, we’re all individual jurisdictions and we didn’t have a common platform where we shared local information other than meetings or by teletype, through dispatch centers, those kinds of things,” said Randall County Sheriff Joel Richardson. “If we were looking for a particular group of thieves or a particular stolen item, the information was very very scattered and, quite frankly, very inefficient.”
Installation of the Panhandle Regional Information and Data Exchange (PRIDE) program began in September 2010 and the data hub went live in March 2011 with some testing ongoing.
PRIDE contains Class C warrant records and provides access to state and federal law enforcement databases that provide information on Class B misdemeanor and higher warrants, wanted and missing person reports, stolen property reports and other records.
To access the data, more than 40 law enforcement agencies were equipped with more than 250 Panasonic Toughbook mobile data terminals (MDT). Prior to the installation of the MDTs, which was completed in May, often officers had to radio a dispatcher who would look up a record and radio the information back. Now officers can do their own searches, saving time and reducing dispatcher workload.
The MDTs also allow dispatchers to track the location of officers on patrol and assign calls based who is closest. Officers can also see the location of calls and respond to the one they are nearest. They can hit a key on their MDT and dispatch knows the officer is responding to that call.
Now that officers can query databases from their cars and don’t have to rely on dispatchers as much, Richardson said the department may be able to get along during busy nights with fewer dispatchers, which could mean less hiring.
One of the biggest advantages of the system, Richardson said, is the ability of an officer who stops a vehicle to run the license plate and know before the encounter whether an individual is wanted by another jurisdiction or other pertinent information.
Each of the local agencies will decide what information they want to make available through the system, but examples could include records of previous bookings, an officer’s field interview report from a previous encounter or whether an item has been previously pawned.
Some of that data is public information that hasn’t been stored in one place before. “If it’s public information, there’s no reason not to share it,” Richardson said. “But there is some of it that is not public information, and each agency will have to decide how much of their records they wish to share.”
Sharing of warrant information would also increase agencies’ reach as they seek wanted individuals and could provide additional revenue for the jurisdiction where the secondary arrest is made. According to Richardson, state law allows for an imposition of a $50 warrant service fee on the wanted person that could be additional revenue for the agency whose officer makes the arrest.
In 2010, the Randall County Sheriff’s Office received an $800,125 Justice Assistance Grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which combined with $300,000 from a DHS grant received by the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission were the major sources of funding for the MDT deployments and establishment of a regional data hub established by the city of Amarillo.
Amarillo offered to host PRIDE in its new communications center and the data hub, which includes Class C warrant information.
The design of the Class C database is modeled after an existing regional automated fingerprint identification system built with Microsoft SQL Server, said Amarillo CIO James Brown. Each MDT is equipped with NetMotion mobile virtual private network software that facilitates secure access to regional, state and national law enforcement data through a single search.
In addition to establishing the regional data hub, the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission is working on connecting PRIDE to the Law Enforcement Analysis Portal, a similar database managed by the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Implementation of the portal in the panhandle is still a few months away.